Music Must Bring Light

A portrait of Soviet composer Edison Denisov

By Anders Beyer

As a part of the ISCM World Music Days in Switzerland 1991, a concert was held in the church of the small country town, Boswil. Although only a small provincial town, Boswil has a particular significance in music, for every year it holds composition seminars with participants from all over the world. This year’s seminars were scheduled to coincide with the ISCM World Music Days. The Soviet composer Edison Denisov was invited to take part in the seminars and also had the opportunity to attend several ISCM concerts.

Internationally the threesome, Sofia Gubajdulina, Alfred Schnittke and Edison Denisov, are considered to be the leading lights of Soviet composition. I met the composer and asked him about conditions at home after the political shake-up. For many years, the ideological and political relationship has made interaction between Soviet composers and others difficult. It was almost impossible for composers to travel out of the country. Denisov reports on these difficult conditions:

It has been possible to travel for quite a while now. But in Breshnev’s time everything was run by the communist party and we had a kind of mafia in the composers’ union that was strong and had real power. They were convinced that only they represented Soviet music, because all the members had received honours. So these people, this mafia, held power for forty years. They often supported mediocre artists in order to get more support, more power, and they fought against composers who had a different way of thinking because the latter group had the talent.

I don’t believe that there was any political reason for banning performances, recordings or publications of our music, or for preventing us from travelling very often. I received numerous invitations from abroad to attend first performances of my music. For example, I was forbidden to go to the first performance of my Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in Leipzig in East Germany. I was also forbidden to travel to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Poland. It had, as I said, nothing to do with politics, but rather with rivalry.

I was never close to this mafia; there are several of us who made a conscious effort to remain independent. I have always tried to retain my integrity with respect to art, I’ve never tried to write conformist music, but have composed music that I was convinced I had to write. I never wanted to take part in that game, and I have never been a double-dealer. Naturally our lives have been quite difficult. Not least it has been a major problem to earn enough money simply to support ourselves. I have a family of four children.”

That was before the political changes. Denisov spoke about the conditions that started to change about ten years ago.

They couldn’t continue to refuse to perform new works and we were able to travel more and more. Almost everything changed with Gorbachev. Since he came to power we have had no difficulty travelling. Now I accept invitations when I can or want to; I don’t have to make up an excuse. That said, however, I refuse three-quarters of all invitations; I only go when it is important. I am here in Switzerland, for example for two months, where I will, among other things, hold masterclasses. In addition, Radio Swiss Romande in Geneva has prepared five broadcasts of my music. And I will go to Fribourg where I will be on an international jury for church music. This is something I have been preparing for a long time, so I accepted the invitation to work in Switzerland for two months.”

But for most of the year Denisov stays in Moscow. He teaches at the conservatory where he has a large group of young students. But how do they regard new music in Russia?

“Interest in new music has always been great in our country. The concert halls are always nearly full when we play new music. For example, a year and a half ago Boulez went there for the first time with Ensemble InterContemporain to give five concerts. Two of the concerts took place in the large 1300-seat auditorium at the conservatory. The concerts were sold out, not one ticket was left and the audiences were fantastic. Boulez was happy with the warm reception; even when he conducted Le Marteau sans Maître—it’s a difficult work at first hearing—none of the 1000 strong audience left the hall. They shouted ‘bravo’ and ‘encore’. And when the French electro-acoustic music was played, IRCAM’s music, there were no seats available, people even sat on the stairs. The young people, in particular, are interested.”

Denisov explains that the reason the public likes good, interesting music, is that it has been banned in the Soviet Union for decades. Only music from the classical period and ‘official’ music was played. Naturally the public never accepted that; they wanted ‘live’, new music. And they are very interested in what’s happening in the rest of the world.

“If one looks at the history of music in Soviet Russia, there were outstanding composers in the 1920s whose works were banned for more than fifty years. They simply were not to be found in music history books. I am thinking of composers such as Nikolai Roslawez and Alexander Mossolov. It is only now that these composers are beginning to be recognized. Recently the editor of the music journal, Musica, published two works for piano by Roslawez, but a large part of his music has been lost; scores have been lost for all time. It is annoying because these composers are more important to me than Prokofiev and Shostakovich.”

In the West we hear a lot about the three composers, Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke and Edison Denisov. There are many other composers who seldom have works performed outside of Russia. Doesn’t this conflict with the new openness?

“I don’t know. It’s not our business; we—the three that you mention—don’t determine the conditions. Naturally we were together when the movement for new music was started and then together in the fight against the ‘official’ music. But there were others, for example Andrei Volkonsky. He is a very good musician, but unfortunately, he has emigrated. He couldn’t get anywhere in the Soviet Union and now lives in Aix-en-Provence. Volkonsky is actually unknown, but he is nonetheless a very important figure in Soviet music.

I could also name a composer like Valentin Silvestrov, who lives in Kiev, and I wonder why his name isn’t mentioned together with ours? Or a composer who I think is one of the most important, Alexander Knaifel, who lives in Leningrad. He is a composer who has still to be recognized. For me he is a great personality and an extremely important Soviet composer. If we consider the younger generation, then I would name Dmitri Smirnov, Victor Jekimovsky, Ashot Zograbiam, Peteris Vasks, Alexander Wustin, Wladislav Schut, and the youngest ones, namely Alexander Raskatov, Vladimir Tarnapolsky and Juri Kasparov. This very interesting new generation is as yet unknown, even among the Soviets.”

This was one of the reasons that Denisov founded a society for new music. He is doing everything possible to ensure that music written by composers who have personality, talent and sincerity, will be published, performed and recorded.

“At the moment we have sixteen performers in our new music ensemble. I think that it’s a very decent ensemble and we give numerous concerts. The ensemble has also begun to record; the first CD has already been produced and published in England. On it are works by Jelena Firsova, Wladislaw Schut, my own chamber symphony, and works by Juri Kasparov who is the ensemble’s artistic director. The ensemble has just finished recording four additional CDs which will be released soon. This work is very important. We intend to produce a whole series, a kind of anthology of the best composers. Furthermore, the ensemble often plays music from the 1920s, for example, works by Nikolai Roslawez and Alexander Mossolov. It is important that we do everything possible to gain exposure for this suppressed music.”

One of the places where Soviet composers can get their works performed is at the ISCM festivals. This year Denisov has prepared an appeal to the ISCM delegates. He is asking them to recognize the new society in Moscow and to accept it as an ISCM member. The Soviet Union was actually part of the ISCM from 1923 to 1931, but the country’s ISCM section was dissolved on ideological and political grounds, and the creative people in the section were removed from official musical life.

At the festival in Zurich, Denisov had the opportunity to attend several concerts. Why is it so important for him to be a member of ISCM, an organization that is considered by many to have no future?

“This is the first time I have attended an ISCM concert. The three works I heard indicate that the choice of works performed is not always based on quality. There are some works that aren’t good enough to be played at the festival. Possibly it’s the fault of the jury, I don’t know, but some of those works should not have been there—they were quite simply too poor. Nevertheless, I do think that all musicians and sincere composers who work with new music should come together. We can be informed about what our colleagues in other countries are doing and I think that such cooperation can produce many good ideas.

At this moment many exciting things that could benefit the ISCM festival are happening in my country. We could not only inform others about what is happening there but could also learn how to appreciate the human and musical values in the music that is composed in Russia by non-Russians such as Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Latvians, and so on. I know from attending so many concerts of our music in Holland, England, France and Germany that there is great interest in what is happening there just now.”

But the structure of the festival has been criticized and many say that the quality of the music is poor. Could you envisage a different kind of festival with a new structure?

“I think that all festivals of this type, for example the Warsaw Autumn Festival or the one in Donaueschingen, all these festivals age with time and die. They cannot continue to exist, inevitably they all become a bit old hat and have to fold. It isn’t every day that we get music of genius or high quality. In each century, and especially in the twentieth century, there has been a lot of mediocre music that will not survive. It is played once and then it’s forgotten forever. But that’s normal; it’s time that makes the best choice. For example, Bach’s music was not nearly as well-known as Handel’s in their lifetimes. These days we think of Handel as a fine composer, but we all recognize that Bach was much greater and more important musically speaking than Handel, even though the latter was much more admired by his contemporaries. If we compare Mahler and Richard Strauss, the latter was better known and admired at the time, while Mahler was not always taken seriously. But today we recognize that Mahler held much greater importance for music history and that Strauss was mediocre in comparison.

I think it’s good to have festivals where music is performed and where composers can meet each other; there should be contact between them. But you should not expect to find music of great value in every concert. I think it is most important that the jury exercises strict judgement in its choice of music. I think that the choices made are not always very good. I don’t really know why. But I think that if there were a more rigorous search for new music in the participating countries new names would be found.”

To my request for a more detailed description of Denisov’s own music, the composer was quiet for a moment. He finds it very difficult to speak about his own music. He hates writing programme notes and refuses as a rule to do so. The music should speak for itself in its own language. He says:

“I cannot compose all the time, but rather prefer to think for several months and then work from morning to night. I work best when I have really good soloists. I have, for example, worked a lot with Heinz Holliger. It is an advantage when the composer has the opportunity to work with great interpreters; in any case, it has been very important to me. I have to say honestly that I am very attracted to working with vocal music and particularly with dramatic music. In the future I would really like to compose more music for opera, but it is very difficult to compose in that genre unless one has a commission.”

When it comes to the fundamental relationship to composition, Denisov has a number of doubts about the general attitudes of composers.

“There are many things that worry me. I think that every artist has to maintain a life-long sense of integrity and not bow to fashion. I have spent my whole life resisting what’s fashionable. But what bothers me especially—and this relates to what we talked about before with respect to this festival—is that there are so many composers who work without a real sense of responsibility. I think that a composer is required to exercise strict self-control: to think, to doubt and not to compose automatically. Music shouldn’t be composed of clichés. The only music that has any value is that which has a message, a human one.

I, too, work with technical aspects, with constructs—it’s essential. If one wants true freedom in composition one must understand the newest compositional techniques. But writing technically perfect music doesn’t necessarily work. If the music has no human qualities, if it has no message, then it has no musical value.”

But what does the composer mean by saying that the music should have a message? Does it indicate a religious point of departure for the compositional process as is the case with Schnittke?

“I don’t agree that Schnittke’s starting point is religion. His music is not religious at all, but anti-religious. I really like his music, he is a good musician and a good composer. But I don’t like his way of thinking which is modelled too much on Bruckner, Mahler and Haydn. I oppose models. It is always difficult to speak about contemporary music, about music by one’s friends. I am very interested in what happens, but I don’t want to be tough on my friends. I think that others’ thoughts and points of view have to be appreciated. But what I don’t like about Schnittke’s music is that there is no light, there are only shades of grey, and a deformed and uncomfortable view of the world.

The musical aesthetic that is closest to mine is Glinka’s, Schubert’s and Mozart’s. I really like clarity in thought; I don’t like ‘heavy’ music. That’s probably why I don’t like the music of Richard Strauss. The clarity of the composition is important to me. It certainly is no accident that the most important opera for me is Mozart’s Magic Flute. Perhaps I am conservative, but that’s the way I am.”

© Anders Beyer 1991.

The interview was published in Danish: ‘Musik skal give lys: Et møde med den sovjetiske komponist Edison Denisov’, Dansk Musik Tidsskrift vol. 66, no. 3 (1991/92): page 74-78. The article was also published in Anders Beyer, The Voice of Music. Conversations with composers of our time, Ashgate Publishing, London 2000.


Edison Denisov (1929–1996, Russia) was a native of Tomsk in Siberia. He first studied mathematics and music at the Moscow Conservatory where he com- pleted his studies in composition with Vissarion Shebalin, orchestration with Nikolai Rakov, analysis with Viktor Zuckerman and piano with Vladimir Below in 1956. From 1959 he taught formal analysis and composition at the same conservatory and in 1990–91 he was invited by Boulez to work at IRCAM in Paris.

For almost 30 years Denisov worked with Juri Ljubimov, Director of the Moscow Taganka Theatre, on theatrical performances in Russia and in various European countries. Denisov’s scores are published by Internationale Musikverlage Hans Sikorski. Recordings of his music can be found on the Sonora, Accord, Berlin classics, Pierre Varany, Accord and Triton labels.